A somewhat mislabeled reunion

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Released January 1981, Reunited Live, in spite of what the title might suggest, is a reunion of some of the latter-day Four Seasons, not either of the two classic era lineups. Nick Massi, Tommy DeVito, and Joe Long appear nowhere in this 1980 Garden State Art Center concert, though Bob Gaudio did play keyboards.

Present instead are Don Ciccone (guitar and vocals), Jerry Corbetta (keyboard and vocals), Gerry Polci (drums and vocals), and Larry Lingle (guitar and vocals). Absent from the latter-day lineup are Lee Shapiro (keyboards) and John Paiva (guitar). Probably because this is a reunion of a later incarnation of the band, their Seventies material is featured much more heavily. The Sixties songs all appear as medleys, not full songs.

Thanks to venerable L.A. ear surgeon Victor Goodhill, Frankie’s otosclerosis was healed by this point. Dr. Goodhill used bones from UCLA’s bone bank to make a new stapes bone for each ear. The hearing in one ear went from 35% to 98%, and a year later, the second operation brought the other ear up to 87%. With most of his hearing restored, Frankie was able to sing most of the lead vocals on this record.

While there may have been some studio sweetening, this is a great live show, showing this incarnation of The Four Seasons in top-notch form. They were never a live band like The Who, but I don’t think anyone would expect their stage presence to markedly differ from their studio style. What you hear is what you get.

It’s also great to hear Frankie singing again, live no less, so soon after the miraculous restoration of his hearing. These songs show him in peak vocal form, in comparison to how he lip-syncs all his shows these days (though that’s the topic for another post!).

Track listing:

“Who Loves You”
“Our Day Will Come”
Medley of “Save It for Me,” “Rag Doll,” “Dawn (Go Away),” and “Let’s Hang On!”
“Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”
“Fallen Angel”
“Silver Star”
“Slip Away”
“December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)”
“Swearin’ to God”
“My Eyes Adored You”
Medley of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” “Workin’ My Way Back to You,” “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” and “Opus 17”
“Spend the Night in Love” (#91 in the U.S.)
“Heaven Must Have Sent You (Here in the Night)”
“Grease”
Medley of “Sherry,” “Walk Like a Man,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” and “Bye, Bye, Baby (Baby Goodbye)”

The last gasp of a classic sound

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Released May 1972, Chameleon was The Four Seasons’ only Motown album, after many successful years at Phillips culminating in rapidly waning popularity. Though founding member and lead guitarist Tommy DeVito left after the release of their previous album, Half and Half, the band’s classic sound nevertheless was able to continue for one more album.

While bassist Joe Long and keyboardist Bob Gaudio (both of whom also performed backing vocals) contributed to major comeback Who Loves You in 1975, Chameleon marked their final foray as part of The Four Seasons’ public face and overall style.

By 1972, The Four Seasons’ established voice and style were very out of step with the face of popular music. They’d developed beautifully into a very smooth, mature, adult style, while still staying true to themselves, but it wasn’t what most people wanted to hear anymore.

Songwriters Bob Gaudio and Bob Crewe went back to the drawing board to try one final time to get back into the mainstream with an album full of songs people would welcomingly embrace. Their songs were usually such a winning blend of contemporary sounds with the band’s own style, but most of their fans had long since moved on.

Though Chameleon failed to chart in the U.S, it’s very warmly received by both modern fans and critics. It has a wonderful sound, continuing to show how The Four Seasons really hit their creative stride after peak popularity. These albums from the second half of their career show how much deeper they were than their image suggested.

Some of the unused songs ended up on Frankie’s 1975 solo album Inside You, which is composed of Chameleon outtakes and unreleased songs.

Track listing:

“A New Beginning (Prelude)” (instrumental)
“Sun Country”
“You’re a Song (That I Can’t Sing)”
“The Night” (#7 in the U.K. after a 1975 rerelease)
“A New Beginning”
“When the Morning Comes”
“Poor Fool”
“Touch the Rainchild”
“Love Isn’t Here (Like It Used to Be)”

Because the album tanked, Motown’s subsidiary label MoWest (who officially released Chameleon) cancelled a planned follow-up record. In a 2014 interview, Frankie attributed the lack of success to Motown’s nonexistent promotion. The greatest album in the world can fail if it’s not promoted properly, or at all.

A smooth farewell to a classic lineup

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Released May 1970, Half and Half saw The Four Seasons returning to a more familiar pop and soft rock sound, after the critical success but commercial failure of January 1969’s Genuine Imitation Life Gazette. Longtime fans were confused and angered by this radical departure from their signature sound, and this change in direction did nothing to garner many new fans.

Songwriter Bob Gaudio went back to the drawing board for what turned out to be the band’s final album on the Phillips label, and produced songs that felt like a more mature, updated version of their previous hits. They’re the obvious work of The Four Seasons being themselves, not trying to remake themselves at a very awkward crossroads in popular music history.

Some fans feel the album suffers from its deliberate half-and-half direction (corresponding to the title). Half the songs are proper Four Seasons’ songs, while the other half are Frankie Valli solo. However, I don’t find that confusing or jarring. It’s just how this album came together!

I love how it showcases Bob Gaudio’s continued maturation and evolution as a songwriter. Of course the hits he wrote in the Sixties are awesome, but he couldn’t be expected to keep doing songs like “Dawn (Go Away),” “Sherry,” “Ronnie,” “Candy Girl,” and “Girl Come Running” as he approached thirty. It’s the same reason I no longer write like I did as a teenager, even though the core elements are much the same.

Songwriters, musicians, writers, artists, etc., who stay in the exact same style their entire creative careers are boring. All creators need to grow, evolve, change, mature, and develop over time. It doesn’t mean each project necessarily has a radically different style. One can easily mature and evolve within that same general voice and style. As new elements are added, they naturally mesh with the pre-existing style and voice.

It’s a shame The Four Seasons grew into such a smooth, mature style after their popularity peak. Their albums from 1969–77 are such a wonderful treat, possibly their best work, night and day next to their earliest hits most people associate with them, but most people are completely unfamiliar with them.

Sadly, most people automatically wrote them off as unhip, an embarrassing reminder of a different musical milieu. No matter how much they evolved with the times and tried different things, that could never cut it for people who’d already moved on to newer bands. A lot of artists who’d enjoyed great popularity in the early and mid-Sixties sank in popularity almost overnight in 1968-69, replaced by new bands. I’ve heard it called the British Invasion in reverse.

Half and Half only reached #190 in the U.S., though it did spawn three minor hits. This was also the final album to feature founding member and lead guitarist Tommy DeVito (who’ll turn 91 on 19 June). Truly, a perfect farewell to the second of their two classic lineups.

Track listing:

“Emily”
“And That Reminds Me” (#45 in the U.S.)
“Circles in the Sand” (probably my fave track!)
“Sorry”
“The Girl I’ll Never Know (Angels Never Fly This Low)” (#52 on U.S. Billboard; #32 on the Adult Contemporary chart)
“She Gives Me Light”
“To Make My Father Proud”
“Patch of Blue” (#94 in the U.S.)
“The Morning After Loving You”
“Any Day Now/Oh Happy Day (Medley)”

A sophomore comeback album that deserved better

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Released April 1977, Helicon was the followup to The Four Seasons’ incredible 1975 comeback Who Loves You. While WLY charted at a modest #38, it nevertheless spawned three hit singles and launched the band (with a fresh new lineup) on a strong second wind of their career. It seemed as though their next album would make just as good of a showing.

Sadly, that wasn’t to be. As strong as this album is, it only made it to #168, and the album’s sole single, “Down the Hall,” only made it to #65 (though it was #40 on the Adult Contemporary chart). As had happened several times during the band’s career, there was more success in the U.K., where “Down the Hall” was #34 and “Rhapsody” was #37.

Once again, songwriter Bob Gaudio kept a keen ear to popular sounds and translated that into songs that would work with The Four Seasons’ unique style and voice. While this yielded a smooth, mature album both timeless and in tune with the musical landscape of 1977, it wasn’t what most U.S. fans wanted at the time. Why?

Helicon has more of a rock sound, not enough touches of the blue-eyed soul and harmonies which defined much of the band’s previous work. While WLY does have a disco sound on some of the songs, that actually wasn’t a major trend in 1975. The Four Seasons were ahead of the game, but fans didn’t want them to be so ahead of the game they left those aspects of their signature sound behind or neglected them too much.

Bob had always written towards the next or current big sound, but this time he didn’t pay enough attention to harnessing the things which had already given his band their biggest hits, esp. the most recent. There’s obviously no denying his talent and keen ear towards the musical climate, but his songwriting strategy did start suffering a bit at this time.

Think of it like a writer who’s achieved great success with, e.g., historical fantasies, and then decides to try her hand at contemporary urban fantasy, steampunk, and alternative history. It’s somewhat of a departure from the established style, but still within the general genre. Some fans will eagerly follow, while others will be upset the new books aren’t the exact subgenre they came to know and love.

I’ll continue building on this analogy in my posts for Streetfighter (1985) and Hope + Glory (1992).

If you listen to the entire Helicon album, you’ll hear obvious evidence of harmonies and danceable songs, but those weren’t the songs pulled for singles in the U.S. Albums often sell on the strength of their singles, giving people a taste for the entire product. If the wrong singles are chosen, sales often aren’t so hot. In Helicon‘s case, the singles didn’t build on the sound which had earned the band success with their comeback.

Additionally, Frankie’s otosclerosis was gradually worsening, and he only appeared on lead in “Rhapsody,” “Put a Little Away,” and “I Believe in You.” As with WLY, the vast majority of vocals were handled by bassist Don Ciccone and drummer Gerry Polci. Since Frankie was in the thick of a solo career, he needed relief from too much singing.

Track listing:

“If We Should Lose Our Love”
“Let’s Get It Right”
“Long Ago”
“Rhapsody”
“Helicon”
“Down the Hall”
“Put a Little Away”
“New York Street Song (No Easy Way)”
“I Believe in You”

Helicon is a wonderful album which deserved so much better, and has begun to be reappraised. If only certain things had been done a bit differently, it might’ve had a lot more success.

How to craft a knockout comeback album

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In honor of the one and only Frankie Valli turning 85 on 3 May, I’ll be using much of this month to spotlight a crop of albums from the second half of The Four Seasons’ career. Most people who don’t live under a rock have at least passing familiarity with the band’s Sixties songs, but not so many are well-versed in their post-heyday albums.

Their Seventies music has a wonderful maturity, proving they were more than capable of developing into a new direction. It definitely deserves to be heard by a wider audience, and proves they were so much more than bubblegum Top 40.

Released November 1975 (can’t find the exact date), WLY came after three albums with very underwhelming chart positions, and signalled that The Four Seasons were back in very strong form, worthy of being taken seriously. It also came in the middle of Frankie’s hugely underrated solo career.

WLY introduced a new lineup behind Frankie’s familiar anchor—Don Ciccone (bass), formerly of The Critters; John Paiva (guitar); Gerry Polci (drums); and Lee Shapiro (keyboards). Pre-existing bandmembers Joe Long (bass, backing vocals) and Bob Gaudio (keyboards, backing vocals, piano) also appeared, though they were no longer part of The Four Seasons’ public face.

Because Frankie was suffering from gradually worsening otosclerosis during this time, Gerry Polci and Don Ciccone sang most of the lead vocals. Frankie only sings lead on “Storybook Lovers” and “Harmony, Perfect Harmony.” On all the rest, he only appears in choruses, bridges, and the background.

The mature, relevant sounds of this album are the result of songwriter Bob Gaudio keeping a close ear to current music and translating that into The Four Seasons’ unique style and voice. Unlike the critically neglected Genuine Imitation Life Gazette (1969), WLY successfully harnessed the two forces and translated it into a big comeback.

After Frankie had a #1 solo hit in early 1975 with “My Eyes Adored You,” he and Bob got Warner Brothers to sign The Four Seasons to a contract. Simultaneously, a two-LP greatest hits collection was released and quickly gained gold status. Several other solo singles in the first half of 1975 were also big hits.

Though WLY yielded three hits, the album itself only rose to #38. The follow-up Helicon (1977), while awesome, didn’t capture nearly the same amount of public interest. This seems to suggest the band’s new generation of fans were only interested in singles to dance to, not longterm loyalty.

Track listing:

“Silver Star” (#3 in the U.K.; #38 in the U.S.)
“Storybook Lovers”
“Harmony, Perfect Harmony”
“Who Loves You” (#3 in the U.S.; #6 in the U.K.; #20 in Canada; #13 in South Africa; #16 in Australia)
“Mystic Mr. Sam”
“December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)” (#1 in the U.S., U.K., Canada, and South Africa; #2 in New Zealand; #3 in Ireland, The Netherlands, Belgium, and Australia; #6 in Norway; #11 in Sweden; #12 in Scotland; #16 in Germany) (one of the most overplayed songs ever!)
“Slip Away”
“Emily’s (Salle de Danse)”

Yes, there’s an obvious disco sound to some of the songs, but they don’t sound dated or only good for dancing. This album is the complete package of a mid-Seventies sound with The Four Seasons’ unique voice.